I can think of few songs as harrowing as Perfume Genius’ “Learning,” the title track off his overlooked 2010 debut. Since the release of Learning, Perfume Genius (off-stage, Mike Hadreas) has labored under the radar, crafting two more albums of intricate yearning pop that dares to address difficult subjects without mitigating or ignoring their complexity and darkness. This alone would deserve praise, but as anyone who has followed Hadreas knows, the wonder of the music stretches far beyond the bravery of the subject matter. Not only has Hadreas tackled topics in ways that would terrify a less impressive artist, he has done so within some of the most arresting and breathtaking music of the last decade.
Too Bright, Hadreas’ third album under the Perfume Genius moniker, is no exception, even though it strays from and expands upon the Perfume Genius sonic palette. This has all been part of a steady progression. After the release of Put Your Back N 2 It, critics rightly noted that Hadreas’ music was brightening, combining the almost unrelenting melancholy of Learning with fuller arrangements. If Learning was defined by its spare piano-based aesthetic, Put Your Back N 2 It was proof that Hadreas was more than able to expand, allowing thicker sounds to flower out of a well-established foundation.
This continues on Too Bright, which is arguably the happiest of Perfume Genius’ work, if only by virtue of its predecessors’ cutting bleakness. However, just like on Put Your Back N 2 It, every new musical and thematic facet feels wholly organic, as if each track is in intentioned conversation with those surrounding it. Opener “I Decline,” which makes use of the same simple piano that dominated Learning’s tracklist, seems both to engage with and question that simplicity, reaching outwards in its very first lyric (“I can see for miles”). This ethos of conversation is further highlighted later in the album when that lyric is repeated on “Grid.” Sonically, “I Decline” and “Grid” could not be more different. Whereas the former unfolds in hazy, mournful, elegiac tones, the later charges forward along a hungry and insistent bass line that is periodically thrown aside by sharp, bracing electric screeching. It’s an unnerving experience, and yet it somehow makes perfect sense. It underscores Hadreas’ impulse to be both attended to and undermined. Furthermore, it marks Too Bright as an album of growth through recontextualization, a record that seeks to harness the raw and unashamed anguish of its predecessors and channel it into an altogether different breed of ferociousness. In the same way that one lyric can be the seed of two vastly different experiences, Too Bright time and time again seems to argue that any one emotional force can grow in a host of directions.
This is not to say that Too Bright positions itself as a record of straightforward healing. As anyone who has explored Hadreas’ work knows, he is an artist who opposes any narrative of straightforward recovery. Certainly, the subjects addressed on all three Perfume Genius albums—suicide, drug addiction, sexual abuse—demand a more complex understanding of restitution and therapy. While on “I Decline,” Hadreas notes an “angel just above the grid/ Open, smiling, reaching out,” he is quick to rebuke the symbolism of the image. Later on “Grid,” the angel has vanished altogether, and all that remains is “a diamond/ Swallowed and shit/ Then swallowed again.” It’s an arresting confluence of images, each swimming atop and negating the other, but it speaks to the larger questions of evolution the Hadreas asks with his music. While songs like “Queen” ride confident and throbbing guitar lines, others such as “I’m a Mother” disintegrate under their sound, trading in whimpers and rumbles as opposed to any traceable musical arc. In fact, the whole album seems to build and crumble and build over the course of its runtime, trading in a conscious self-subversion and sabotage that both encourages and frustrates any notion of closure. It’s a mature transfiguration of theme into form—especially for an album that could be dismissed as pop—and one that allows Too Bright to gradually reveal itself as it moves along, and then to deepen with multiple listens.
On top of all of this, Too Bright is also absurdly beautiful, composed of 11 deeply assured songs that feed into each other texturally such that certain stretches seem to be made up of one long track. In passing, I’ve described Hadreas’ music as something like the lovechild of Youth Lagoon and Radiohead. However, that undersells the incontrovertible distinctiveness of what he has created with each of his three albums. I can think of no other artist who is able to maintain the devotion to honesty and growth that defines Perfume Genius’ discography, qualities that become all the more impressive when played out so thoroughly over the course of barely 33 minutes. Too Bright manages to feel both absolutely self-contained and blessedly incomplete, opening itself up on either end to the richness of Hadreas’ previous work and showing us what has allowed these first three records to mingle with and feed off each other so magnificently.
If these albums were films, they’d be the sort that you’d want to marathon before the release of each successor. Even as I write that, the temptation to compare disparate art forms seems foolish and reductive. Still, it’s hard not to find something almost narrative or cinematic in Hadreas’ work. His music has an almost synesthesiac texture that bubbles within each and every record. The result is often painful and challenging, but always engrossing. If Too Bright doesn’t promise a balm to all of the wounds that Learning and Put Your Back N 2 It explored so ruthlessly, it gestures towards a sense of wholeness and closure that seems to preclude any scabbing. That’s a rare and wonderful destination.